ain’t gonna study war…

The prophet Isaiah offers us a remarkable poem to set us moving in the right direction this advent. It’s actually a poem that doesn’t belong only to the prophet Isaiah – the prophet Micah offers almost the exact same poetic words at one point in his writings. Which means that this shared poem is one that clearly captured the imagination of God’s people in ancient times. This shared poem, this shared song, gave expression to something decisive about their hope in God. And so this poem has survived the ravages of time and has survived the challenges of transcription from one scribe to the next – it has been handed down through generations so that we also may hear this beautiful description of what happens when God draws near in judgment and grace.

The Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This song has resonated down through the centuries. It is a song that has been sung in many different contexts – giving expression to the hope of God’s people. One of the more beautiful and difficult and remarkable expressions of this song is one that comes to us from pre-civil-war America. This version of the song has been known as “Gonna lay down my burden” and as “Down by the riverside” and as “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Here is the earliest known recording of this song, by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, recorded in 1920:

Perhaps the most important thing to observe about this song is Isaiah’s conviction that this future will become reality when God makes it so. When you read this passage from Isaiah chapter 2, you get the sense that it’s just going to happen – one day we will wake up and this just will be the reality for Judah and the world. Whereas one day the world is full of violence and hatred and injustice, the next day will somehow see a world transformed in the reality of peace. Yes, this new world will follow on God’s gracious, strong, and difficult judgment of the nations, but its appearing seems to be as miraculous as the first creation ever was.

Certainly that is the message that comes to us in Christ – that the new reality of God’s kingdom must arrive – must appear – must come to us from outside of ourselves and our societies. It’s not a reality that we can accomplish – not a reality that belongs to us to create – not a future we can generate. God in Christ has done a new thing – God in Christ will finally do a new thing – and that new thing is the creation of a new world living at peace.

We seek to live faithfully in this kingdom – the refrain of Isaiah 2:5 becomes our refrain: “Come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” But singing this refrain never leads us into the illusion that God’s kingdom or peace is in our hands – it is in Christ’s hands. Thanks be to God.

Roland De Vries, Montreal

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